Last Friday evening over dinner, the conversation turned, not surprisingly, to Puccini’s immense popularity. (I’d soon be heading up the hill for the Santa Fe Opera’s second show of the season, La bohème, in a revival of 2007’s production.) One of the guests, herself a gifted Musetta, allowed as how Puccini’s appeal wasn’t hard to explain: “He simply beats you into submission.”

True enough, most likely, but when I left the Crosby Theatre later that night, I felt profoundly unbeaten and unbowed. It wasn’t so much director Paul Curran’s fault. He’s staged three Britten operas here—Peter Grimes (2005), Billy Budd (2008) and last summer’s Albert Herring—each of them the hit of the season. The man’s gifts for vivid imagery, insightful characterization and musical understanding go unquestioned. His Bohème, a plain vanilla, no-frills presentation, doesn’t exactly disappoint. Unlike his exciting Britten stagings, it just sort of sits there.

Kevin Knight’s sets and costumes are serviceable and, for the most part, drab. One can appreciate the concept: Focus on the music and on the interaction among the characters; forget Zeffirellian flash. But despite the hyperactive Café Momus act, Paris never looked duller or less romantic. Scenic designs for this two-act show need to be efficient to get from garret to street scene and from city gate back to garret, all in a trice. But need they look so penny-pinched?
The economies apparent in this production may, consciously or not, recall an oft-ignored, unpleasant truth about La bohème. The opera’s as much about l’argent as it is about l’amour. Rodolfo as impoverished poet/lover is a fraud; remember that rich uncle? Both Musetta and Mimì know a thing or two about money for love; Musetta can always find a sugar daddy, and Mimì snags a wealthy viscount. Even those lively bohemian boys prove that poverty can be fun.

Opera-la-la land has its share of gold-diggers. When you’ve made your list (go ahead, try it), Musetta may rank near the top. She certainly, in the lovely person of Heidi Stober, ranks at the top of the cast in this production. It’s not all that hard to find a singer who can portray a saucy, impudent, self-centered Musetta. Stober scores on each of these points, but with a voice and manner that can make us forget the dullness around her. She’s radiant; she’s sly; she’s nasty; she’s a pussycat on steroids. And above all, she embodies all the vitality that Mimì lacks.

This is not to say that Ana María Martínez is a failure in the role. She’s just being Ana María Martínez, not Mimì. Despite her vocal assurance, her lush lyricism, her technical skill (oh, those diminuendos), she never inhabits the character. Her “Mi chiamano Mimì” comes across as a well-sung if hyper-conscious set piece for lyric soprano. This gal has never touched a needle or fabricated a flower in all her operatic life. Despite the evening’s best shot, that beautifully sung third-act quartet, my heart remained solid granite all night.

There’s not, alas, a microwatt of electricity between Martínez and Mexican tenor David Lomelí, making his SFO debut as Rodolfo. Lomelí, a Domingo protégé, can’t act, can sing. When on pitch, which was not all of the time last Friday, he produced a flexible, well-centered voice with enough squillo, or “ping,” to be interesting. But like Martínez’ missing Mimì, where’s Rodolfo?

As Schaunard and Colline, Markus Beam and Christian Van Horn made reliable contributions to the action. Corey McKern reprised his solid 2007 performance as Marcello. Conductor Leonardo Vordoni, in another SFO debut, offered a reliable account of the score. Solid and reliable, reliable and solid: that’s this Bohème. Period.

La bohème
9 pm
Wednesday, July 13
Through Aug. 26
Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive